caleb duarte

artist profile by dewitt cheng

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“Cement,” 2008, cement, house paint, insulation, wood and drywall, 8′ x 13′ x 10′
Photo: Bernard Henry Manning, Courtesy of LIMN Art Gallery, San Francisco

In graduate school, Caleb Duarte was advised that his socially conscious artwork was “not art-schoolish”- that it was more appropriate for art centers than for galleries or museums. Given the art world’s aversion to political content (unless redeemed by theory or purified by technology), this was well-intended fair warning. Fortunately, Duarte has been able to fuse his humanist instincts with the formal innovation demanded by museums, galleries and art centers. His figurative art dignifies his working-class subjects and comments on onerous social conditions, but within a contemporary formal framework; it’s cutting-edge art with a populist heart.

Duarte grew up in the small Central Valley town of Corcoran, California. His father was a community organizer and the pastor of a small nondenominational church serving Mexican migrant laborers, some undocumented, and he became a keen observer: “At a young age I questioned why European-Americans had a hold on all parts of society within my own small town. The history taught in school seemed distorted and written by and for specific peoples… the educational disparities between ethnic groups were so apparent.” He added, “Our town was also a prison town. So the reality of the prison industry was in our back yard.” Encouraged by his family, he drew, finding that art as well as faith could express “a higher and pure truth.” After attending City College in Fresno, he moved to the Bay Area, attracted by its beauty, its history of grassroots political activism, and the San Francisco Art Institute’s traditional encouragement of experimental painting. Despite some disillusionment with art world realities, Duarte regained his footing and set about using his painting skills to go beyond painting: ”As artists we must take some control back of how images and information are used in society.”

His images take form as installations and three-dimensional wall assemblages, “sculptural paintings,” combining raw and sometimes worn construction materials (wood framing, earth, sheetrock, driftwood, cement) with drawn figures surrounded by scuffs, scrawls and stains; they become somber, almost monochromatic theatrical spaces, like construction sites or ruins, haunted by human presence-and absence. In the installation Calivera, for example, a rude wooden shanty seems to spring from the wall and enlarge into real space (through exaggerated perspective); through the window we see drawn on the wall, a line of bare-chested black men: chained slaves? His small Cuadritos (“little room”) paintings focus more on the people, buffeted by “globalization, militarization, materialism, fear, emptiness, and the constant expanding space between those who have and those who have not,” but, as is increasingly clear, not so different from First Worlders as we used to think.

These works are not the agitprop that formalists defensively invoke, like conservatives denouncing the enemies of their idealized realm. Duarte is interested in “changing the collective mind” through empathy with “the depths of suffering and joy experienced by all people”-empathy being an emotion largely lost to modern art since Nietzsche’s obituary for the bourgeois, imperialist god of our fathers. As Duarte’s work reflects Eastern and Western religious/philosophical ideas, it also challenges the gallery/museum v. art center dichotomy: “I’m interested in existing in-between, where it fits in neither [but is] … strange and beautiful in both.

Art institutions have seemed to have a set particular visual language, a set platform for discussion. It is our work to challenge that and not be guided by its expectations, as difficult as that is.” Duarte is currently studying cast-earth and indigenous construction methods in Brazil, and is interested in the idea of social protection, especially as manifested by the nonsectarian New Sanctuary Movement, today’s global Underground Railroad.